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The thyroid hormones tend to get the most attention from the general public when it comes to weight loss. You hear people say all the time that they struggle with their weight because they have a “slow thyroid” or something to that effect. There is no doubt that the thyroid hormones play a major role in both weight loss and weight gain. They are significantly impacted by insulin, cortisol, leptin and the other metabolic hormones. Fortunately for most of us, there are ways to improve thyroid function naturally via the foods we eat and our lifestyle choices. Before we dive into what we can do, let’s establish a basic understanding of our thyroid hormones.
There are several thyroid hormones and they all function differently. They are produced and released based on signals the thyroid receives from the brain. Your thyroid is extremely sensitive to external inputs such as diet, environment, stress and toxins. Suboptimal diet and lifestyle choices can wreak havoc on your thyroid. If you take away one thing from this post, let it be that last sentence. Your diet and lifestyle have a MAJOR impact on your thyroid hormones. If you want optimal thyroid function, you need to eat and live accordingly!
Let’s talk about several thyroid hormones and how they are different from one another. First up is T3. T3 is the hormone we’re typically referring to when we think about metabolism. It is an active hormone that regulates your body’s fuel usage and temperature. T4 is the precursor to T3. In order to be impactful, T4 must first be successfully converted. Reverse T3 is a completely inactive thyroid hormone. All three of these hormones need to be successfully produced and they need to be produced in the proper ratios. If the overall amounts or the ratios or off, your thyroid function will be impaired.
Producing these hormones in adequate amounts and proper ratios is not all that is required for your thyroid to function optimally. The hormones must be successfully released from the cell and they must successfully attach to the precise receptor on the cell it is targeting. All those factors must be in place or else you’ll impair thyroid function.
Remember that your body is designed for survival. When you drastically reduce your calorie intake, your thyroid function slows down, taking your metabolism with it. Why? Because your body senses that fuel intake is limited and it doesn’t want to allow you to burn off your stored energy in case you need it. When you slash your calorie intake, your thyroid hormone production is reduced and much of the thyroid hormone you will produce and release will be the inactive form. This is your body’s way of conserving energy in times of perceived threat.
Similarly, when your leptin levels are low or you are resistant to leptin (due to being overweight or obese or consuming a very high carbohydrate diet), your thyroid function will decrease. Again, your body is either not getting signaled, or cannot properly receive the signal, that there is adequate stored energy in your body so it opts to downshift your metabolism to keep you “safe”.
High levels of estrogen can also slow your overall thyroid function. The presence of excess estrogen increases certain proteins that bind to your thyroid hormones and render them inactive. The thyroid is producing the hormones you need but they aren’t able to do their job because their receptor has been taken.
Finally, cortisol impacts your thyroid function. This relationship is a little more complicated. You’ll remember that in small, intermittent doses, cortisol is a significant fat loss ally. In these small, intermittent doses, cortisol can make your thyroid more efficient. Unfotunately, as is more often the case, excess cortisol inhibits the conversion of T4 (your inactive thyroid hormone) to T3, the active form. Why would we have excess cortisol? Chronic stress. Let it goooooo.
As you can see, there is a lot that can go wrong and impair thyroid function, leading to a slower, less efficient metabolism and an impaired ability to burn fat. Fortunately, there is a lot we can do to support the thyroid through diet, lifestyle and exercise.
First of all, proper thyroid function relies on several key nutrients. Here’s the thing – these nutrients MUST be consumed daily because our bodies have no ability to store them. Which nutrients am I talking about? Specifically iodine, zinc and selenium. If you aren’t sure if you are getting enough of these, your best bet is to take a high quality multivitamin. Nutrition is critical for optimal thyroid function.
As has been the case with all the hormones we’ve talked about so far, one of the most impactful changes we can make to maintain metabolic hormone balance is to control our blood sugar. Avoid dramatic peaks and valleys. The most straightforward and effective way to do this is to cut out processed foods and limit wheat and grain products. In fact, avoiding them completely is the ideal. Start by cutting out processed foods and focusing on vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds and some fruit. However, as you make this transition be sure you aren’t drastically cutting your calories. Remember that dropping your calories slows your thyroid function. Eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full.
Finally, lifting heavy weights and high intensity interval type training improves thyroid function by increasing the sensitivity of the cellular receptors to which your thyroid hormones need to attach to function.
I hope you’re beginning to see a trend as it relates to balancing and optimizing your metabolic hormones. They all work differently but they all impact each other. Not only that, they all benefit significantly from a healthy diet that minimizes the blood sugar spikes that result from processed foods, wheat and grain products.
If you want to know more about hormones and fat loss, check out my free podcast!
People think that calories are king when it comes to fat loss and if they can just eat fewer calories and burn as many as possible that they’ll lose weight. Unfortunately, that is NOT true and abiding by that model can leave you hungry, tired, fat and frustrated. I dunno about you but that’s not exactly what I’m going for!
The reality is this: Yes, calories matter. They are the energy currency of our body. If we’re taking in more energy than our body needs to run, we’ll store the energy for a rainy day – often as fat but also potentially as muscle. On the flip side, if we’re taking in LESS energy than our body needs, our body has OPTIONS. What are the options?
Slow down the metabolism so we decrease the energy requirements. Hang on tight to all that extra body fat because famine might be coming.
Break down muscle tissue for fuel.
Break down fat for fuel.
What determines which option happens? Hint: It’s not your calorie intake. It’s your HORMONES. That’s right. While calories DO matter – fat loss (or fat gain) – muscle loss (or muscle gain) – increased metabolic rate (or decreased) is determined by your HORMONES.
And when it comes to fat loss, there is one hormone that is absolutely KING. This hormone will keep you lean OR it will make you fat. And most people have NO idea what it has to do with fat loss or how to make sure its working in their favor. That hormone? INSULIN.
I never gave insulin much thought. I wasn’t diabetic and my blood sugar levels were within the normal range so I never imagined that I might have a problem with insulin. I think most of us probably think the same way – insulin is really only something you need to worry about if you’re diabetic. Here’s the truth: if you want to be lean or healthy, you need to understand and control insulin. If you’re carrying extra weight and are having a hard time getting it off, you MUST pay attention to insulin. It’s not optional.
Insulin became a problem for me (without me knowing it) because I spent years in the carbohydrate cycle. Maybe you recognize it? I’d wake up in the morning and have a bowl of cereal and some juice. Having not eaten since dinner the night before, my body would react to the rapid influx of carbohydrates in that meal, sending my blood sugar through the roof and giving me a burst of needed energy. Insulin arrives in response to my elevated blood sugar, as its job is to clear the sugar from the blood and take it to its storage place. As fast as my blood sugar rose, it plummets because there was nothing in my meal to keep it steady (like fat or protein). That energy I experienced? It’s gone. Not only that, but low blood sugar tells the body that I need more fuel. That triggers hunger as well as cravings for carbohydrates, as the body knows that is the fastest way to get that blood sugar back up. So now, only an hour or two after eating, I’m hungry again, I’m tired, and I’m craving more carbohydrates. That low blood sugar has also trigged a stress response from my body so now there’s this uneasy sense of urgency – “I gotta have sugar NOW!”. So, I’m human. I’d go get a sugary granola bar or snack out of a box of crackers. Annnnnnd we’re right back in the damn cycle! As if being hungry, tired, moody and craving sweets weren’t bad enough, we’re storing fat all the while!
Here’s how insulin works: When you eat foods that raise your blood sugar – think carbohydrates & processed foods – insulin is deployed. Insulin acts as an usher – whatever sugar isn’t immediately needed for fuel is going to be ushered out of the blood by insulin and taken to storage. We talked in detail here about what happens when our short term storage space is full and how that leads to fat storage.
The storage function of insulin is why we consider it an anabolic hormone. Its role is storage or build up of extra fuel. The fat loss process is a catabolic process. In fat loss we are breaking down stored fat. You cannot have an anabolic and catabolic process happening at the same time. So when insulin is around your body is NOT going to burn fat because the signal insulin sends to your body is, “Hey! There’s excess energy (via sugar) hanging around – we’re gonna go find a place to stash it – don’t release any energy (via stored body fat) because we’re already got too much!”
You are either in fat-storing mode or in fat-burning mode. You’re always in one or the other and you cannot be in both. The determining factor? Insulin. Carbohydrates control insulin and insulin controls fat storage. Your dietary choices determine whether or not you’re allowing insulin to work for you. You’re either eating to trigger fat storage, accelerated aging and inflammation or you’re eating to allow insulin to help you burn through your fat stores.
We now understand why we want to eat to control insulin, but lets talk about what happens we don’t. I already talked about the carb cycle and that’s one example – when we don’t eat to control insulin we’re chronically hungry, craving carbs, and experiencing energy swings – periods of high energy followed by periods of low energy. Here’s a quick run down of how high blood sugar and excess insulin will impact your health if you don’t consciously eat to control them.
Chronic high insulin levels cause your cells become resistant to it. It’s always around, so they stop responding. You know how after listening to loud music for a while it doesn’t seem so loud? The same thing is happening to your cells. Insulin is always around sending these loud signals and your body just gets used to it and begins to ignore it. When your cells stop responding to insulin, not only does your blood sugar remain high, but your body perceives that it needs more insulin and keeps producing more and more, creating a cycle of increased fat storage, impaired fat burning and excess insulin production. Plus, remember that insulin tells the body there is plenty of fuel available. That message turns OFF fat burning. When we’re always producing more insulin as is the case with insulin resistance, our body never gets an opportunity to turn fat burning ON.
When insulin resistance prevents glucose from getting into your cells, your cells think there isn’t enough glucose in your body and so they initiate a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogensis is the process of generating more glucose and dumping it into the blood stream for energy. Of course this energy isn’t needed and likely gets stored as fat.
Chronically elevated blood sugar is bad news, but so is the chronically elevated insulin that comes along with it! This can lead to systemic inflammation, heart disease and impaired blood flow.
Your pancreas will eventually get tired of over-producing insulin. When this happens, you may become “insulin dependent” – requiring injections of insulin to help control blood sugar.
Excess insulin wreaks havoc on your hormones. It can decrease your body’s production of growth hormone, which is essential for energy, repair, metabolism, immunity, libido and much more.
Insulin resistance decreases certain thyroid hormones slowing your metabolism while increasing fat storage and decreasing your energy levels.
Elevated insulin decreases sex hormone synthesis, which negatively impacts your menstrual cycle, fertility, mood, sex drive and more.
Chronically elevated insulin encourages fat storage. The more fat you have, the more of the hormone leptin you produce. Just like you can become insulin resistant, you are likely to become leptin resistant. Leptin is responsible for signaling the brain that you’ve had enough to eat. When you’re leptin resistant, your brain has a hard time receiving those signals and don’t experience that “I’m full” feeling.
Elevated insulin prevents glucagon from doing it’s job. Glucagon is a hormone that is required for fat to be allowed to leave fat cells and travel to be burned as energy. Glucagon will not operate in the presence of elevated insulin.
Scary stuff, huh? The reality is that this is what’s happening to your body when you eat a high carbohydrate diet rich in processed foods or you don’t move your body regularly. It’s compounded if you’re eating poorly AND not exercising.
The GREAT news here is that most of us have the power to control our blood sugar, moderate our insulin release, make our bodies highly sensitive to insulin and become a fat-burning machine!
When your body is highly sensitive to insulin, it signals your genes to create more receptor sites for insulin making you even MORE sensitive to insulin! When you exercise regularly, you repeatedly deplete the glucose stored there, allowing your next meal to refill those stores instead of being stored as fat. Your body becomes highly efficient at utilizing nutrients and drawing on fat stores for additional energy needs.
So, the take away? Your diet and lifestyle choices tell your body to get fat and stay fat, or get lean and stay lean. Whatever choice you make, your body is going to compound it. So where to start?
Eat to control your blood sugar. This means avoiding processed foods and grains. Build your meals around healthy fats, protein and vegetables.
Aim to get at least 3 high intensity workouts in each week. This will work to deplete your glycogen stores and teach your body how to be energy efficient
Take it one meal, one day at a time. You’ll feel the difference.
For detailed information on carbohydrate strategies for fat loss including more on fruit, wheat, oats, gluten plus strategies for improving your carbohydrate tolerance, check out the comprehensive carbs & fat loss ecourse! Follow the link below and use the coupon code Primal10 to get lifetime access for only $69 (including troubleshooting help from me on demand!) https://www.udemy.com/carb-strategies/?couponCode=Primal10
For more specifics on what carbs are the right carbs as well as the right TIMING for carb consumption, check out episodes 007 & 009 of the Primal Potential podcast via the link below. In episode 007 we talk about carbohydrate timing – the right times and the wrong times for carb consumption to keep you in fat burning mode. In episode 009 we talk about carbohydrate spillover – how and when carb consumption leads to excess body fat.
We have the power to turn on fat burning via our food choices. That’s pretty powerful stuff. What’s more powerful, in my opinion, is understanding how we’re constantly turning fat burning OFF via our food choices without even knowing it! There is one particular hormone, insulin, that loudly signals our body to turn off all fat burning processes. And many of us, especially those of us who are carrying extra weight, are allowing insulin to shout that message to our bodies allllll the time without knowing it! Today I want to explore how and why insulin sends that message and how we can eat to ensure that insulin does NOT send that message. Our control of our blood sugar and our insulin response is the primary determinant of our weight loss, energy levels, our cravings, hunger, focus, mood and much more. Here’s the bottom line that you need to understand: your body cannot and will not burn fat when insulin is high.
Remember that when we eat carbohydrates, they must be broken down into their smaller building blocks so that our bodies can use them for fuel. In the case of carbohydrates, these building blocks are sugars. To be used for fuel or to be stored, this sugar travels through the blood stream. Insulin is deployed in response to high blood sugar because it is the usher that helps take the sugar to its ultimate storage space. Think about it – insulin is deployed when there is fuel that needs to be stored, right? Those conditions make insulin signal the body, “hey, there’s plenty of fuel here, we are now in storage mode.” That message turns OFF any fat burning machinery. Why? Because burning fat generates extra energy for the body and insulin has signaled the body that there is already an excess of energy. No more is needed! Your body is efficient. The presence of insulin signals the body that there is EXTRA fuel. Your body won’t allow fat burning when there is extra fuel because that would be inefficient and it would flood you with extra energy that there wasn’t any use for. The presence of elevated insulin levels turns OFF fat burning machinery in your body. Get it?
In order to turn on fat burning in your body, two conditions must be met:
The right hormonal environment
Less fuel available than your body needs to operate
Most people only focus on #2. They eat less without regard to their hormonal balance. They don’t realize that the hormonal environment is what determines whether or not your body will allow fat burning. If you just create a caloric deficit by eating fewer calories, your body could respond by burning muscle and/or by slowing down your metabolism and signaling the body to hang on even tighter to your stored body fat! There’s another hormone that has to be in play for fat burning to be allowed. And guess what? That hormone, glucagon, can’t do its job if insulin is hanging around. Glucagon works opposite of insulin. Where insulin is deployed in response to excess fuel and facilitates storage, glucagon is deployed when there isn’t enough fuel and facilitates the breakdown of body fat to provide fuel for the body. Remember, since insulin signals the body that there is an excess of fuel, glucagon can’t break down fat under those conditions!
A lot of people will assume this means that we shouldn’t ever eat any carbs if we want to lose weight – that’s just not true – we just have to make sure that we’re eating the right carbs at the right times in the right amounts. So how do we do that? We’ll get there! In our next post we’re going to look a little more closely at insulin before we dive into specific strategies for how to turn on fat burning via the foods we eat.
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If you want to lose weight you have GOT to start paying attention to the link between hormones and fat loss. If you haven’t heard, the calories in/calories out model is DATED. It might make you lose some weight but you’ll be hungry, tired and doing damage to your hormone balance along the way! There is a better way. Hormones dictate your ability to burn fat. If you feel like you’re doing all the right things but not seeing the results you want, its time to start working SMARTER, not harder.
Have you ever been so hungry that you can hear or feel your tummy rumbling? That right there, that rumbling sensation, is thanks to the hunger hormone known as ghrelin.
When your body senses that fuel is needed, either because of low blood sugar or your stomach being empty, a hormonal cascade is initiated. Levels of ghrelin increase, triggering your brain to stimulate hunger. Elevated ghrelin levels also encourage your body to store fat in and around your abdominal region. Low levels of ghrelin have the opposite effect – they minimize hunger and cravings.
Understanding how to control ghrelin levels gives us the power to control our hunger and cravings. Here are some strategies to consider to help keep ghrelin levels low and hunger and cravings at bay.
Avoid severe caloric restriction. Low calorie diets increase ghrelin production.
Eat your veggies. Non-starchy vegetables like Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cabbage are high in both water and fiber. They stretch out your stomach, lowering your ghrelin levels and keeping them low for longer.
Eat protein and healthy fats with each meal. This slows the digestive process and slows the rate at which food is emptied from your stomach. The longer you have food in your stomach, the longer your ghrelin levels stay low.
Avoid fructose, especially from processed foods, soft drinks and fruit juice. Yes, fructose is found in fruit but its most concentrated in processed foods in the form of high fructose corn syrup. Fructose raises ghrelin levels, making you feel hunger, and it also lowers leptin levels, preventing you from feeling full.
Eat often. Especially when you’re starting out in your fat loss journey you’ll be best served to eat every 3-4 hours. This will help keep your ghrelin low and your hunger and cravings to a minimum.
Avoid chronic stress. We all need to work on this one, but chronic stress increases ghrelin production.
Exercise regularly, especially in the form of high intensity intervals and weight training. These activities increase our production of human growth hormone, which inhibits ghrelin.
Make sure you’re consuming adequate omega 3 fatty acids, especially EPA and DHA, from oily, cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, anchovies or mackerel. Studies have shown that insufficient omega 3 intake increases ghrelin production.
Being hungry and battling intense cravings makes fat loss harder than it needs to be. Controlling hunger and cravings can make healthy eating almost effortless. Pick one or two of these strategies to focus on this week!